‘All My Sons’ is a play by Arthur Miller. I never see it without thinking of a comment made by a participant on one of our reenactment workshops. He’d been involved in an incident which though serious could have been much more so. Now, before putting anyone to work, he asks himself, ‘would I put my son to work in this situation?’ Safety had become deeply personal to him. I’ve also been involved in two very significant incidents where the unimaginable has happened with life-changing consequences. It’s no coincidence that both my and Beehive’s current focus and energy is in the field of safety and safety culture. It’s not just my business, it’s personal.
Everyone is someone’s son or daughter
Our participant’s comment wasn’t intended to exclude women, he just didn’t have a daughter. But what had been brought very clearly into focus for him was he’d been complacent, and it was only luck that stopped serious harm happening to a colleague. He was courageous enough to admit it, and recognise that everyone is someone’s son or daughter. Therefore, they were precious and he needed to take more care.
That universal idea is the central theme of the play too, which I’d recommend seeing. It’s as good an analysis of the causes and devastating consequences of a protection v. production decision as any event report or case study I’ve come across. It’s also about human weakness and the need for personal qualities, like courage and resilience, under pressure.
‘Knowing’ and knowing
When I began working in the field of health and safety I remember reading that the ability to catastrophise is an important skill. They meant being aware of all the things that can go wrong, and anticipating them. This is because, as Murphy’s Law says, if things can go wrong they will. But there are two different types of knowing that things can go wrong:
- One is the intellectual knowledge, based on training, rationality, laws of probability, physical properties, situational conditions, and endless induction presentations, that mistakes happen and so may happen to you.
- The other is the very personal, visceral knowledge you gain through actually being involved in an incident. This cuts through the psychological defence of ‘it would never happen to me’, because it has. The knowledge that the world can turn from comfortable predictability to chaos without warning is something that can’t be learned through powerpoint or toolbox talks. And it has a profound effect.
Those people to whom nothing has ever happened cannot, by definition, have the second type of knowledge. That’s not a failing, it’s a fact. Whether this is a good or bad thing for safety I don’t know. Sometimes the issue for those people to whom something has happened, particularly if there is any kind of post-traumatic impact, can be hypervigilance – seeing danger in everything. That can be paralysing, and as unhelpful as denial. A middle way seems best to me – vigilance but without the hyper. Recognising the risks and mitigating them while still functioning as effectively as possible.
Safety – deeply personal
The journey back from both the incidents I was involved in has been long and hard. I’ve seen and experienced personally the impact that a significant incident can have on someone’s mental and physical health.
As well as my own experiences, in a previous life I was a police officer. On a shift by shift basis I dealt with others’ life changing events, which had both accidental and intentional causes. The impact on the perpetrator could be as intense as the impact on the victim. Later, as a trainee psychotherapist I also worked with people coming to terms with the effects of similar kinds of incidents and events on their lives. There’s no solution – these events are part of living. But we can still do a lot to prevent them, which begins with taking responsibility for our actions.
It’s no surprise therefore that now my energy and the focus of Beehive is working to develop the kind of individual and organisational mindset, skills and tools that will help to avoid such incidents, increase accountability and keep people safe. To summarise what we seek to develop:
Awareness that Interdependency is not a safety culture, it’s the human condition. We need, are impacted on, and impact on others whether we recognise it or like it or not. Therefore, we need to shift our mindset to recognise this fact, and start learning the skills that will help us to work with the people around us. That’s the only way we can hope to minimise harm and keep ourselves and each other safe.
We need the skills that enable us to work with each other most effectively. Assertive communication, listening, constructive feedback, leadership, team building, performance management, collaborative problem solving, and building trust and relationships, are some of the most important skills for any site or organisation to function effectively. When I talk to people about this I have never heard anyone disagree. Yet, in my experience, they are often the least present. There are few organisations putting serious money into investing in the personal mastery which will facilitate the next step change in safety, which is cultural.
Tools such as coaching and mentoring models, action and experiential learning, developing and sharing best practice, collaborative problem solving and human performance approaches are essential tools. Any tool that help someone to recognise the systemic nature of human interaction, promote understanding, improve communication and build trust and resilience, supports this process. But any tool is reliant on the mindset and skills of the people using them. Take a look at my past blog https://bsafebuzz.com/2017/08/10/what-can-we-learn-about-behavioural-safety-from-americas-love-of-firearms/ to find out why.
I’m not suggesting that all we need to keep people safe is a group hug. I am saying that for me this stuff is not just business, it’s personal. And to make the next step change in safety this is the direction we need to go in – we need to make it personal.